August 22nd, 2018
The sisters entered slowly into the gathering place next to the dining hall. Some of them shuffled their feet as they made their way to a chair. Some walked unsteadily with canes. Some of them used walkers. They were all old, but “old” is a vague description. Some of the women had hair that was still steel grey. Others had hair that was pure white. Some stood erect. Others were bent and stooped. They all dressed in a consciously understated fashion. Their jewelry, if they wore any, consisted of a necklace with a crucifix hanging from it, or maybe a pair of tiny earrings. Some of the sisters were bright and alert. Others looked exhausted from the journey to their seats in the room. When morning prayer began at promptly at 7:45, there were probably forty sisters in the gathering space. All of them were ready to begin this new day in the same way that they have for fifty years or more.
Karin and I prayed with the sisters several times during our retreat at the Sinsinawa Mound Center, the mother house for this branch of the Dominican sisters. None of these women seemed in any way extraordinary. Many of them were quite frail. However, I was struck by the way they held themselves. They all had a quiet dignity. They were all retired from decades of service to their order. They had made their choice years ago, and now they at the tail ends of their careers, and their lives. These women were not going to leave Sinsinawa. The mother house was their permanent home now. Sinsinawa was the last stop. Every one of these women seemed to be at peace with their choice in life. That was my impression.
The Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters are a teaching order, and they work throughout the United States, and in two other countries. There are over 450 sisters total. Most of them are working in various capacities: as teachers, administrators, nurses, and social justice advocates. About 160 of the sisters are at Sinsinawa. They are the frail and elderly. Karin and I had lunch with a sister who told us that average age of a member at the mother house was seventy-nine. Seventy-nine. The latest estimate for the life expectancy of a woman in the United States is 78.74 years. Karin and I attended a birthday party for on sister who celebrated her centenary. The woman was rather spry.
Karin and I also happened to be at the mother house for a funeral. One of the sisters had died at the age of ninety-six. On Monday afternoon the casket was stationed in the main chapel. Later in the evening, around 5:00, the women moved the body of their sister to the gathering place. There was a ritual involved. Four of the sisters carried candles in front of the coffin. Six sisters served as pallbearers and rolled the casket forward. There is a large foyer between the chapel and gathering place that the women use for prayer. On either side of the foyer stood dozens of sisters in a line, like an honor guard. As the sisters with the candles and the casket walked past the these women, their comrades filed in behind them to make up a procession. All the women sang as they walked to the gathering place with the sister that they had lost. They started out with “Salve Regina”.
There is a long hallway between the foyer of the mother house and the gathering place. It is called the “Diamond Walkway” because of the shape of the windows on either side of it. I followed along in the back of the procession as it it wound into this walkway. The sisters began to sing “Immaculate Mary”. I remember seeing the candles flickering in the distance, and I heard the sister’s feminine voices chanting:
“Ave, Ave, Ave Maria! Ave, Ave, Mariiiiia!”
I didn’t sing along. I didn’t want my feeble tenor to contaminate the beautiful blend of sopranos and altos. It makes me cry to remember it.
Everyone ate dinner after the sisters left the body of their friend in the gathering place.
I embarrassed myself while going through the buffet line. Across from me was a young woman, probably in her late twenties. I asked her,
“So, do you work here?”
She looked at me and said, “I am one of the sisters…oh, and I do work here.”
Then she asked me, “Are you on retreat?”
The girl smiled at me sweetly, indicating that the conversation was over.
After the dinner, we all went to the gathering place. They had a wake of sorts. It was called a “sharing”. We prayed, and then the people who knew the deceased, Sister Prudence Ludwig, told stories about her. Some of the stories were serious. People talked about how “prudent” the sister was. She was apparently an extremely competent woman: organized, clear-thinking, and focused. Others told humorous anecdotes. One sister talked about Prudence’s desk drawers, where she had everything in exact order, even the paper clips facing the same direction. That sounds like OCD do to me, but I didn’t know the lady.
It was a beautiful service. How many 96-year-olds get a wake where their long time friends reminisce about them? More to the point, how many people die among friends? Most old people die alone and forgotten, at least in our country. Prudence Ludwig did not die alone. She was taken to her final home by her friends and her loved ones. Prudence is blessed.
They had the funeral Mass the following morning. Then they laid Prudence to rest in the cemetery not far from the mother house. The vast majority of all of the sisters are buried in that cemetery. The stones are simple. They only show the date of death and the name of the deceased. In most cases, the name starts with an “M” for “Mary”. For many years the sisters chose Mary as their first name and then another name to elaborate on their choice. I saw stones that said “M. Theophilus” or “M. Benedictus”. Mary always came first. The theotokos (God-bearer) always came first. Some of the grave stones were worn away. The names are gone now, as are the memories of the dead.
Karin and I walked to the labyrinth, which is right next to the cemetery. I looked at Karin. With her short hair, and her flowing, long skirts, and her deep religious devotion, Karin could easily be a sister here. I told her that.
“You know, you belong here.”
Karin looked at me.
“Oh, I don’t mean in the cemetery.”
She hit me in the arm.